Blazin' on $20 a Day

A DJ for every club, a mic for every stage: Five days in our own hip hopolis

You could be rapping for $1,500 in an MC championship, or shaking your ass for $250 in a "Minnesota hottie contest." You could be backspinning in sneakers at an off-campus bar, or bouncing in heels at a suburban dance palace. Wherever you're stepping these days, the soundtrack is likely to be hip hop. And the crowds who enjoy it in the Twin Cities have never been more spread out and less likely to know one another.

Saying hip hop has gone mainstream isn't enough: The phenomenal proliferation of dance nights and MC battles is more like 10 subcultures exploding at once. Still, if I learned anything over the first week of September, going out each night with a $20 bill and a notepad, it's that the hip-hop scene is no place for modesty--or clothing, as the case may be.

 

WEDNESDAY

An Asian guy with a giant Afro is hunched over onstage, screaming into a record needle. It's the rare hip-hop show at the 400 Bar, but the New York trio Dalek is rock enough to fit the place. The DJ, Hsi-Chang Lin, does everything but spray his turntables with lighter fluid and smash them on the amplifier.

Sitting on the floor against the wall of the West Bank club is a lanky, sleepy-looking white dude with a thin beard. His rap name is New MC, but Zach Combs has been doing it for years as a member of the Minneapolis crews Interlock and Kanser. Combs has become a fixture of every MC battle night in town, an expert at the improvisatory art of the rhymed insult. He's cocky, and he's earned the right to be. But he's worried about the big "Showdown" in four days at First Avenue, a contest with a $1,500 prize.

"My game is off because I lost that battle," he says, referring to a recent competition at Intermedia Arts' Twin Cities Celebration of Hip Hop, where he took second place behind a guy from Oklahoma called Duo the Sick Prophet. "He was good. He definitely beat me. But I haven't lost a battle since the 12th grade--and I was on acid then."

Combs later heads over to the Cabooze, where respected local rapper Musab is performing. Atmosphere's Slug and Mr. Dibbs make the trip over, too. Four years ago, having two hip-hop shows on the same night in the same neighborhood would have been rare. Now it's rare not to have three or four events on a given evening. "It's been that way for about the last year," says Slug as he walks in. Despite his VIP status in the scene, Slug pays his admission like everyone else.

"Hip hop has always been profitable, but nowadays you can do it without having a fight every night," adds the guy who booked the Cabooze show, Jamie Laurie.

He's talking about real fights, not the metaphorical rap ones that have grown so popular in the last year. "The battles at the Loring Pasta Bar were doing really well, so everybody wanted a piece."

Now former rave promoters are doing competitions at the Quest, he says. The underground is getting lucrative.

 

THURSDAY

Onstage at Urban Wildlife, a rapper named Knonam ("no name") is wearing a T-shirt that says "Rap Sucks." He's kicking off a weekly live hip-hop night at the downtown Minneapolis club, presented by hip-hop writer Kandis Knight and the indispensable local website D.U. Nation (www.dunation.com).

One of the DJ's turntables seems to be shorting out. So he lets the other record play, as Knonam exhorts the audience: "Come on, sing that shit!" The song is "Eye of the Tiger," the musical equivalent of an old Tom Wopat poster, but amazingly, the mostly female audience complies. Never mind hands in the air--plenty of local hip-hop fans would do handstands if asked.

Half an hour later, there are three times as many women packed into the Star Bar in Columbia Heights, a biker hangout launching its own weekly hip-hop night.

"This place was dead two weeks ago," says a woman at the bar. "Now it's like this. They held a 'hottest girl in Minnesota' contest earlier. Two girls kissed each other. They'll have another one later, so stick around."

"Are you going to participate?" I ask.

"Hell no!"

Soon northeast Minneapolis hip hoppers Unknown Prophets finish a bouncing set of reality rap, and give over the stage to a dozen gyrating contestants, all competing for a $250 prize. Half the room empties out before the contest is over.

The mood is more carnal at Daddy Rocks in downtown Minneapolis, hosted by B96 midday personality Anjali "the Queen B." "Mommy, forget English, talk body language," raps Jay-Z on the speakers, as dancers on the floor grind slow and close, their concentration broken only by the occasional rush of security jettisoning somebody out the front door.

At one point, the guards swoop by and bump a woman wearing a pattern dress into my arms. She doesn't miss a beat: "Hello there." She throws her leg around my side and holds it there, dancehall style, and we dance "the security guard dance."

Nearby, a woman grabs the shirt of her partner behind her to steady herself, then bends over so far, her chin is bobbing an inch from the floor.

Who needs a cash prize?

 

FRIDAY

Chuck Chizzle on KMOJ-FM (89.9) is giving local hip hop his love. "Oh, baby, we got some more hometown talent. We've got my man Muja Messiah. It's called 'Give It Up.' This is one of the hottest joints out right now. He always sets fire to the mic. Twin Cities, don't forget to hit us up for your comments and suggestions about the hometown talent. Let us know if you're feeling it or if you're not."

Minneapolis hip hoppers might be able to identify the stretch of pavement in St. Paul where they lose the signal for KMOJ. (Someday they'll get www.kmoj.net over satellite radio.) For me it's somewhere west of Rice and Larpenteur, the intersection in suburban St. Paul where I plan to take in some step dancing and thong photography this evening.

The Queen B hosts Fridays at Club Cristal, a venue in a strip mall that is apparently upscale enough to require a velvet rope. My date and I walk up and are greeted by a tall, suited bouncer, who gestures for us to wait. We look around the parking lot. There are two pawnshops on this block, and some other stores, all closed. There's nobody else waiting to get in, nobody is coming out.

The guard looks around, not glancing at anyone in particular. After a few minutes, he unhooks the rope, and lets us in.

 

SATURDAY

Zach Combs takes a break from his early-evening shift at a pizza joint near Kenwood long enough to walk down to the Fifth Element record store and distribute flyers for an upcoming show. But he doesn't participate in the open mic night inside. Local turntablist K-Salaam is spinning records, stepping down from the tiny stage once or twice to grab more off the racks. (Later tonight, on KFAI-FM (90.3/106.7), Vibe columnist Bobbito Garcia will tell K-Salaam that the DJ's mix CD made him cry.)

Toki Wright of the C.O.R.E. is freestyling in front of the small crowd, acknowledging the presence of one of the more popular battle MCs. "Ice-Rod's in the place! His legs are furry like Keith Murray."

With his mullet and mustache, Ice-Rod makes an easy target. (As Wisconsin's Jack Cracker raps the following night at First Avenue, "I came to Minneapolis to battle Joe Dirt?") He got his start at this weekly open mic, now held Saturdays at 6:00 p.m. This is where wannabe MCs have come to prove themselves over the past year, often in battles. So after Slug joins Toki to help warm up the room, they give the stage over to a series of newcomers and out-of-towners.

Two ex-Chicagoans, one from the north side, another from the south side, battle it out, one spitting "faggot," the other calling him on his "homophobic shit." They shake hands and pat backs when it's over.

Later, Toki is approached by a performer so young, his voice hasn't dropped yet. "Can I rap?" the boy asks.

"Sure, what's your name?"

"Josh."

"Let's hear it for Josh!"

On the microphone, the kid is incomprehensible. But he gets over on guts alone.

That's the thing out-of-towners say they notice about hip hop in Minneapolis and St. Paul: We're not famous enough to be cutthroat. A couple of hours later at the Dinkytowner, Los Nativos have fans rapping along in Spanish (and, amazingly, on a song they haven't officially released yet).

When their set is done, breakdancers take over the floor as DJ Stage One throws on some Elephant Man. One b-girl, Seoul, takes off her white tennies, puts them on her hands, and stands on them as her torso spins to a stop. She's egging on Daylight, the more experienced and resourceful b-boy, who gamely takes up the challenge.

Knocking back one last drink, the mustachioed, sweating DJ Francisco heads out of the club to the Red Sea on the West Bank, where Dan Speak is spinning at his own weekly hip-hop dance night. Francisco himself used to host First Avenue's phenomenally popular hip-hop events in the VIP Lounge. "I got 86ed," he explains.

On the floor at the Red Sea, the crowd forgoes popping and locking in favor of the simple things in dance: slow, funky moves and close coupling. Sade would approve.

 

SUNDAY

"How many of y'all went to a battle before 8 Mile," shouts Kevin Beacham, onstage at First Avenue. The crowd roars for its cred. "That's what I wanted to hear."

Hosted by Beacham, DJ'd by Aaron Money, and organized by Adam Garcia and Abijit (who promote Monday nights at the Loring Pasta Bar), tonight's "Showdown" rap championship has drawn 16 MCs from all over the Midwest and half a dozen judges (including Felipe Cuauhtli from Los Nativos, and Toki Wright). The live instrumental hip-hop group Heiruspecs headline. But it's basically the Fifth Element scene with more pressure.

Ice-Rod is clearly the local favorite, his name yelled the moment he hits the stage. He doesn't win over this audience with rhyme skills, exactly. His high-pitched shout and uncanny bluntness are just stone funny. When one of his opponents dusts off a cliché like "You don't know how to compete with me," Ice-Rod answers, "I don't know how to compete with you/I'll just get on stage and fucking defeat you."

Budah Tye, who takes the mic with a heavyweight championship belt draped over his shoulder, is just as confident destroying his first opponent: "He ain't 8 Mile, he more like two blocks," the rapper barks. The MC goes on to face Swan, a rapper from Detroit who had the same Afro pick sticking out over his forehead the evening before, at the Fifth Element. Swan has been dropping good one-liners all night, and his battle with Budah Tye is so close, the judges call for a re-match.

"Dude want to rap but needs to chill," Swan spits, "because this is what size belt he wears for real."

"I may lose some weight, but he can't gain some skills," comes the retort.

In the end, Swan takes the round, and goes on to meet Zach Combs, a.k.a. New MC, who just had the unhappy job of defeating an old crewmate. ("Interlock--he's still repping it," he yelled. "We kicked him out a year ago/he still hasn't accepted it.")

"I'm a rapping butcher," Swan starts. "But why the fuck I got to battle Ashton Kutcher?"

The white boy comes back with an intricate rhyme to the effect that Swan's raps are "premeditated," and that "whatever's in his Afro's fucking with my allergies."

Combs ends up making it to the final round against Wisconsin's Jack Cracker, and wins that one, too, nabbing the $1,500. "This one's from God," he says. "'Cause my brother's going to jail Wednesday and we need the money for him."

As Combs heads offstage, most of the participants join Slug for some freestyling--he's celebrating his birthday. But Swan is obviously still smarting from the loss, and gets in one last jab at Combs. "What the hell/This is obviously a plot to get Kanser's brother out of jail."

Combs yells something back, and a cup of water sails through the air. Swan drops the mic to the stage--clunk--and jumps off, lunging at Combs. A spotlight shoots to the floor, security rushes in. Within a minute, the winner of "Showdown" has been ejected from the premises.

"I'm sorry I snapped off like that," he says outside, looking sheepish.

As Slug talks to Swan near the door of the club, doing some diplomatic work, Heiruspecs' MC Felix takes the mic.

"That's why we keep it onstage," he says.

A woman in the audience shrugs. "That's hip hop."

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